From April 11-13 2019, Muhlenberg College was honored to host the seventh annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies undergraduate conference. My co-organizer Elizabeth Nathanson and I were amazed by the quality of undergraduate research, the diversity of their interests, and their intense intellectual engagement with each other. It was truly inspiring to think that our fields of cinema and media studies have these students joining us. For this edition of “Student Voices,” we invited several students with spatially-oriented projects to submit written versions of their papers to Mediapolis.
Anushka Robinson’s “It Takes a Village” argues that Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre (2011), uses a small French port city as a space of rebellion against dominant anti-immigrant attitudes in the larger domain of “Fortress Europe.” Aesthetics choices such as color and elliptical editing construct a sense of community that welcomes a migrant child from Gabon. The film thus represents a vision of an alternative, utopian Europe that is inclusive and constructs human bonds that are distinct from the traditional ones of family, race, and nationality.
In “Getting Lost in ‘Wondaland,’” Mathilde Fauteux explores the political dimensions of “world-building” as it appears in Janelle Monáe’s Afrofuturist re-working of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. She argues that Monáe’s transmedial body of work — with texts including musical performances, videos, and media appearances — creates a utopian space that celebrates heterogeneity and imagines a more equitable future.
David Chan’s “An Archive of Shirkers” conceptualizes Sandi Tan’s 2018 documentary Shirkers, made out of the retrieved footage from an unfinished 1992 project filmed in Singapore, as an archive of post-colonial power relations. The footage was kept by the American director, then returned incomplete and without sound. Chan reads the resulting documentary made by a Chinese Singaporean as a meditation on this loss, a mourning for the past, and a creative re-imagining of the material in its original location.
In “Worlds Under Watch,” Cedric Bobro studies multiple films in which enclosed worlds are created through surveillance. He theorizes that these films help us understand that surveillance both records reality and creates it. And it is through our awareness of surveillance that we understand the parameters of our world, leaving what is outside that world unknowable or unassimilable.
These student voices clearly go beyond urban media to consider theoretical conceptualizations of space and geographies of many scales. A fascinating theme of world-building emerges—either within a film or seeing the media text itself as a world—along with the related concept of representing utopian spaces. Together the papers exhibit a spectrum of media/space intersections on every level, from physical places to mental spaces. It is also clear how much each author is concerned with the social and political implications of their chosen texts. Reading such exemplary work not only demonstrates how important it is to give undergraduates opportunities to publish, but also what the rest of us can learn from the new generation of media scholars.
Finally, I want to end with a statement from Jeffery Lin, another SCMS-U presenter who was invited to include his paper in this collection. When the current protests in Hong Kong began, however, Jeffery withdrew his submission and instead sent this statement, which is a powerful reminder of how scholarship and direct political action sometimes compete for our energy, even as they are intellectually unified:
It has been a critical time for Hong Kong recently: our authoritarian government ignored the 2 million protesters on June 16 and refused to withdraw the Hong Kong-China extradition bill. People in Hong Kong would be subject to arbitrary detention, unfair trial, and torture under China’s judicial system. Activists, human rights lawyers, journalists, and social workers—everyone’s freedom of speech and expression against the Chinese communist party would be threatened. There was also a serious violation of human rights in the protest on June 12; the police abused their power by attacking reporters, blocking the way for ambulances, and shooting protesters’ heads with rubber bullets. I felt the urge to stand up for my homeland to safeguard the last bit of freedom under the dictatorial Chinese regime. “If this is the cup I must take, I will drink with no regret.” I decided to suspend my scholarly work at this critical moment. My fate is connected to my beloved Hong Kong. Also, as postcolonial studies student, I forever stand with the oppressed and fight against colonial power. My paper presented in this year’s SCMS-U showed my consistent concern for Hong Kong: I discussed the cinematic tactics of the films Ilo Ilo and Made in Hong Kong in constructing a national identity for audiences by comparing their common motif of life in public housing and reasons why they adopted a very different cinematic aesthetic to narrate different “local” stories. I settle my arguments within the context of public housing policy in Singapore and Hong Kong to explain how landscape functions as an ideological device in the film to formulate local identity and sense of belonging for the people. Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong is the first film of the 1997 trilogy, and its protagonists, like Hongkongers, refuse to be instrumentalized by either Britain or China. Sadly, only their death can nullify both abandonment and containment, thereby excising the paradigmatic temporality of successive colonialism. Before the final death of Hong Kong, I have to stand up and clearly declare my refusal of the temporality of colonial nostalgia as well as Chinese takeover.
Amy Corbin is an Associate Professor of Film Studies and Media & Communication at Muhlenberg College, where she teaches courses in film history, genre, and theory. Her book, Cinematic Geographies and Multicultural Spectatorship in America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), explores the sense of virtual travel inherent in films about place and how such geographical representations are employed in the rhetoric of popular multiculturalism. She has also published several essays on race and cultural geography in American film. She holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.